When 7-Eleven stores in Texas suddenly needed to put their hot chicken thighs in some sort of bag — thank you, COVID! — they had to find the right little bags to put them in. As soon as possible. So they desperately called Fischer Paper Products in Antioch, 80 miles north of Chicago.
Typically, it takes Fischer 10-12 weeks to deliver a new type of bag to a customer, assuming it’s not one of the thousand varieties they stock. There is design, then prototyping, then testing. Fischer keeps half a dozen fast food stoves in his break room to test products.
“If the food is going to sit in this package in a heated oven for an hour, the materials have to be heat or grease resistant,” said Joshua Fischer, company president and grandson of the founder.
In this case, they designed, tested, and shipped the bag to Texas in three weeks.
Restaurants, in a continuous state of emergency for more than two years during the societal disruptions of the pandemic – customers staying at home, supply chains tied in knots – will come together to blink, celebrate their survival and trace a future at McCormick Place starting Saturday, for the National Restaurant Association Show, the first in three years.
When audiences think of catering, they imagine waitresses taking orders and cooks mumbling over sizzling grills and children behind counters robotically stacking bags of burgers and fries on trays. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, the visible part. Most of the industry is made up of companies supplying those pads and spatulas and, with Fischer, the bags the food comes in.
At Fischer, “90% or more of our business is in the restaurant business,” said Bill Fischer, vice president of marketing and another grandson of William A. Fischer, who started the company in 1972. “These foodservice user needs are what we focus on, which may be different from retail. »
If you walk into Fischer’s brand new headquarters, open on Halloween 2020, like I did on Wednesday, your first thought might be, “This is the most beautiful factory I’ve ever seen in my life. ” The exterior in gray and black, with huge bay windows and natural stone pillars. I asked Josh Fischer why they went to the trouble and expense to make it so pretty.
“For me, it’s a question of manpower,” he said. “To help us attract the best and brightest talent.”
We talked about handles. As a consumer, I said, it seems that bags with handles know when there’s glass inside and fail accordingly, out of spite.
“They have to work,” Bill Fischer said, noting that the company stress-tests its bags. “Often it’s not the handle itself that fails, it’s where it attaches to the bag. One of the things we do is put an extra patch on those.
This extra patch is a rectangle of reinforcing paper, glued where the handles join the bag, which of course adds to the cost and difficulty of the process, already complicated by the addition of this handle.
A sack machine is essentially a modified belt press – rolls of paper spool on one side, printed with graphics, then folded to size, cut, sometimes punched. If it’s a small, flat bag – think french fries – forming the bottom is a simple matter of folding one edge over and applying glue. A larger, flat-bottomed bag—think groceries—is a three-dimensional shape that needs to be created, then folded, and those pesky handles added. So a flat bag can cost less than a penny; a shopping bag with handles, 20 times more.
The big trend in bags, like in everything else, is ecology and recycling. Grocery bags are already natural, as the color reveals.
“The pulp comes from trees. The trees are brown,” Joshua Fischer said, showing a standard grocery bag. “This is natural craft paper, the natural color of pulp made into paper. while this one is bleached to become white.
Bags are laundered less frequently.
“Over the past six years, demand has definitely shifted from bleached to natural,” he said.
More and more laws are also requiring fast food bags to be recycled – California requires take-out bags to have 40% post-consumer content. But recycling weakens the paper, which means the bags have to be made of thicker paper.
“When you recycle it, it loses its strength,” Fischer said. “If you put a fiber under a microscope when it’s pristine, it has a nice uniform shape. After recycling it over and over again it gets shorter, fluffier, the fibers don’t integrate as well when you form a sheet, so a blank pulp sheet will be a bit stronger than a content sheet recycled. ”
Innovation helps. Fischer had great success putting a small transparent window on the side, showing the profile of a stacked sandwich.
“You can see what kind of sandwich it is from the side, through the window as it sits in the stove,” Bill Fischer said. “And it has perforations to release steam. We are the only ones doing something exactly like this.
And every container company has been looking for that holy grail of COVID-19 delivery: something to keep the fries hot and crispy while DoorDash pushes them to your house. The search continues.
The 175,000 square foot Fischer plant turned 25 million pounds of paper into 2.2 billion bags last year and is expected to reach 2.5 billion this year. It has 17 lines of pinched-bottom bags and three, soon to be five, of flat-bottom bags. It’s almost surprisingly clean for an industrial space. They have room to double.
Each line is built around a bag making machine, which produces 20,000 to 140,000 bags per hour. Some are slower two-tone veterans (the oldest is from 1949). Others are new 6 color machines made by Garant Maschinen of Germany or Weber in Green Bay. The line is largely automated, except where the bags come out. They must be picked up and crammed into boxes by human hands.
“People tried for a long time to shut him out of the process,” Bill Fischer said.
Fischer hasn’t suffered from the pandemic, but his customers have.
“In the first year of COVID, our volume dropped 20%,” said Josh Fischer. “But it bounced back, all that and more, the following year. .. If you’re a restaurant and you’re growing, you need to do takeout and delivery.
The future is spacious for bags.
“Volume is going through the roof,” Fischer said. “We expect 25% growth per year,”